a different approach

In Albany, Fariña criticizes Cuomo’s plan for teacher evaluations

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Raymond Orlando, the city education department's chief financial officer, testifies with Chancellor Carmen Fariña on Cuomo's budget in Albany on Tuesday.

Is a teacher coming to school every day? Is she attending professional development? Is she sharing her lessons with other teachers?

If the state’s teacher’s evaluation system is going to change, Chancellor Carmen Fariña told lawmakers in Albany on Tuesday, it should be to account for more of those factors, not to increase the role of state test scores.

“There’s so many other things,” Fariña said. “I was a teacher for more than 20 years and if I was only measured in test scores, that would only have been a little bit of my work.”

Fariña’s remarks, her most extensive comments yet on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s plans to overhaul the state’s teacher-evaluation system, came after testifying about Gov. Cuomo’s budget proposal. His teacher-evaluation plan would increase the role of state test scores, bring in outside experts to observe teachers, and diminish the role of a principal’s observation in exchange for increasing overall education spending.

“I absolutely believe that holding teachers accountable only on test scores and outside evaluators is not a good idea,” Fariña said in response to questions about Cuomo’s plan.

First passed in 2010, the state’s evaluation law was meant to create a system that rates teachers on a mix of student learning measures and principal observations. But two years after it was first implemented, nearly every teacher has been rated in the top two categories, though the ratings earned by city teachers were slightly more evenly distributed. Cuomo wants to change it to make it more difficult for teachers to earn top ratings, so struggling teachers can be identified and, in some cases, be fired.

New York City implemented its own plan before Fariña took over, but she negotiated some changes to the city’s evaluation system with the teachers union. The new contract reduced the number of skills that principals must assess and agreed to protect teachers who earned low ratings based on test scores.

“I think that what we’ve got in New York City, which is unique to New York City, should be a model for the rest of the country,” Fariña said.

But Fariña also offered a much broader idea of her vision for measuring a teacher’s performance. She suggested a better way to evaluate teachers might be through the framework that the city uses to evaluate schools, looking at elements such as instruction, collaboration, leadership, and ties with the community.

“Are they doing Common Core the way that it’s meant to be? Do they collaborate?” Fariña said.

Fariña noted that her positions on evaluation are in line with the national mood, as parents and officials in more states question the widespread emphasis on using standardized tests to assess schools, teachers, and students. But New York’s debate over evaluations is focused on the best way to measure student learning, making some what Fariña would want measured, such as attendance and collaboration, less likely to gain traction.

Other city’s education officials had more specific recommendations for improving teacher evaluations. Sharon Contreras, superintendent of the Syracuse City School District, said she backed Cuomo’s desire to eliminate local tests to evaluate teachers, but proposed that state test scores account for 30 percent of the overall rating. (Cuomo wants them to account for 50 percent.)

And while the teachers union has been the most outspoken critic of Cuomo’s plans for evaluations, Republicans in the Assembly who are not typical union allies also expressed their unease with giving the state more power over a teacher’s evaluation. Long Island Assembly Member Ed Ra, who has sponsored legislation opposing the Common Core standards, said he agreed 100 percent with city teachers union head Michael Mulgrew’s concerns.

“The more rigid we get, the more difficult” it becomes to evaluate teachers of students with special needs, Ra said.

What's your education story?

This educator sees ‘the power in being bilingual’ — and she wants her students to see it, too

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Liset Gonzalez-Acosta is a the director of dual language at Global Prep Academy.

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Chalkbeat journalists ask the people we come across in our work to tell us about their education stories and how learning shaped who they are today. Learn more about this series, and read other installments, here.

Liset Gonzalez-Acosta is a the director of dual language at Global Prep Academy, an innovation school housed at IPS Riverside School 44. She is part of the first round of local fellows selected to participate in a principal training program run by Relay Graduate School of Education.

I’ve been an educator now for 20 years. I was born in Cuba, and that’s where I got my bachelor’s degree. After that, I moved to Africa. My mom is a doctor, she’s a psychiatrist, and she was sent there for two years. I saw the opportunity to teach in a different place. I met my husband there, and we were married in Cape Verde, and I taught there for six years.

In a poor country like Cape Verde it was really hard for me to continue my studies because there wasn’t a university. So I started looking outside the country, and I was really fortunate to find a university in Vermont where part of their goal is to find international students who wanted to study there and were able to bring that cultural awareness to the rest of of the school.

It was an incredible experience because it was so diverse and you were able to work with people from all over the world. After that, I started looking for a (job). A school in Oregon was looking forof bilingual teachers … and that’s how I got involved in dual language, and it’s been my passion forever.

I see the power in being bilingual, and I want students to recognize you are very powerful when you can speak, write and read correctly in two languages — it’s an advantage for you.

That led me to find Mariama (Carson) by accident. We went to a conference, and I met her. She talked about this project (Global Prep Academy), and it was very interesting. Well, you know how it happens at a conference, you meet people, you say goodbye to people.

I went back to Oregon and forgot about it, and it was kind of … meant to be. I came back to a second conference, and the first person I saw was her. The last day of the conference, I called her, we sat down and talked.

So I came with my family (to Indianapolis). I really loved that the project was in the beginning because it was an opportunity to start something from the beginning. I never saw a new (dual language program) from the ground up.

One of the things that really caught my attention is how different urban education is. The real challenge started when I met the kids. They are so smart, all of them, but they come with so much baggage. It requires a lot of patience, a lot of commitment — believing that they can do it.

I would like to be more in an administrator role, with more administrator responsibilities in that sense because I see the need we have in the school. We have great teachers, but we have teachers who need to be switching their minds around to meet the needs of the kids.

I see education as the greatest equalizer for any student. It doesn’t matter where you are coming from, but if you have an education, you can achieve.

I don’t have all the answers. I have a lot of experience, but I still need to continue learning and growing as an educator. I see myself in 20 years continuing in this career path, but with more experience so that the people that I work with can reach whatever they want to reach — not just the students, but also the educators.

 

How I Teach

Live, from Music City, an elementary school teacher presents life lessons with a beat

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Christopher Blackmon leads second-grade students in a song he wrote and composed as a music teacher at Thomas Edison Elementary School in Nashville.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Sixteen miles from Music Row, a bustling nexus of Nashville’s recording industry, second-grade students are hard at work perfecting a single at Thomas A. Edison Elementary School.

“Winners, winners don’t quit. They don’t quit!” they sing, reading lyrics and music on a screen. “If I can believe it, then I can achieve it! I must leave my doubts behind.”

Then come the dance moves. Students shake and wiggle with exuberance.

The songwriting credit goes to Christopher Blackmon, a music teacher at Edison Elementary and one of 31 educators nationwide named 2017 Music Teachers of Excellence by the Country Music Association. The CMA Foundation is honoring the group Wednesday at a Nashville event hosted by Little Big Town, the CMA’s Vocal Group of the Year.

The acknowledgement draws attention to music education at a time when such programs are being slashed from public schools nationwide. But at Edison Elementary, the pace for teaching and learning music is picking up. In addition to providing instruction twice a week during school, Blackmon and a colleague lead after-school activities that include piano lessons and video production. More than 100 students, or about a sixth of the student body, participate in extra musical enrichment.

Here’s how Blackmon inspires students to love music, and to extend their enthusiasm to other academic subjects. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

I was most impacted by my high school music experience. We had a great program. I was in the band. I played tuba and baritone, but I also played jazz piano for a jazz combo. My band teacher was somebody you just look up to.

I’m always trying to push kids toward having a strong, principled life that means something and contributes something positive to the culture. With music education, I felt like I could teach both music and those positive character principles that I think kids need.

What does your classroom look like?

There’s a big open space in the middle and toward the front because it’s versatile. I do a lot of things with instruments and I set the instruments out and I have students rotating so they can see the screen, where I have the music up. I like to use less paper because students are just going to throw it away anyway.

They also dance a lot. In fact, they dance every day they come here. Probably, if I hadn’t been a music teacher, I would’ve been in P.E. Exercise helps brain development. The coordinated movement, especially symmetrical movements, where you cross the meridians of your body, is very important to cross-hemispheric development. Music as a whole is. That’s why I am such an advocate for music education, especially at the elementary level. I do a lot of stuff with audio production, (and) I could teach that in high school, but I think this is where people’s foundations are. I want to impact the beginning. I want to impact those foundations and help them establish their lives.

I have keyboards along the back of my room. I inherited 10 and then I have begged, borrowed and stole to get a class set so I can teach kids piano. I actually designed these. It allows four kids to sit at a table and hear only their keyboard through headphones. I can have some kids moving faster working together, some kids moving slower working together.

There’s so much research that shows that kids who get early piano instruction — piano or guitar — their brains develop more gray matter. The research shows over and over that they score higher on tests, that they do better with certain types of problem-solving skills, and so it’s better for everybody, whether or not they’re going to stick with it in real life.

What can’t you teach without?

(Click to listen to this track.)


Every time they walk into the classroom, they don’t get a chance to ask me questions and talk, because I told them I want to hear music first.

This little track is really effective because it reminds them what they’re going to do every single day, and then they know what to expect, but it gets harder and harder each time. It starts my class out the same way, but it doesn’t take a long time, and by five minutes into the class, they have already grown musically.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?

I try to catch the ones doing right and then comment on it because people will look at them and they’ll pull it together. I’ll say, “I love how so-and-so is being a STAR.” My little STAR thing is just: stand up straight, track the speaker, actively participate, respectfully celebrate. I say it all the time.

If a kid is just totally not getting it together, sometimes I’ll say, “Can you go write down and say how you would fix this?” That usually helps them.

How does parental communicate fit into your teaching approach?

When I see kids with musical talent, I write a personal note or call that parent and let them know that I really recommend that they get some kind of lesson or connect that child to music in some other kind of way. A lot of time, that will be a hook to get students through school when it’s hard.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

It sounds like common sense, but the best advice I ever received was about classroom management from Sue Hall, who was the last music teacher here. She said, “Whatever you say you’re going to do, do it.” If you don’t have the respect of the students, you cannot teach them. It doesn’t matter how much they like you — I mean, they can love you — but if they don’t respect you, they don’t behave. And if they don’t behave, they cannot learn.

What does it mean to be teaching music in Music City?

What I do wouldn’t be accepted by a lot of music programs. Sometimes they just want you to do stale old canned musicals they found somewhere, or they want you to teach in a traditional way. I teach in a very non-traditional way, because I’m exposing kids to the real music machine. These kids could make a living in a lot of different ways in music. Traditionally, it’s very classical-based instruction. But if they know how to produce music and they have a good idea, you can make a living. You don’t have to be a big label anymore.

Here’s a music video created and produced by Blackmon and students in an afterschool program: